Greg Jayne: Timbers coach is mixing up some soccer magic

Commentary: Greg Jayne

By Greg Jayne, Columbian opinion editor

Published:

 

PORTLAND — As if the record, or the unbeaten streak, or the latest victory were not proof enough, Caleb Porter attempted Saturday to explain just what is going on with his team.

"It starts with the character and the talent you have," the first-year coach of the Portland Timbers said. "In trying to build this team into a winning team, one of the common threads we were looking for was toughness and mental character."

Porter was speaking after a 1-0 win over FC Dallas. After a victory that improved the Timbers to 6-1-8 and moved them within shouting distance of the best record in the league. After a win that extended their unbeaten streak to 13 games.

And while there was nothing magical about Porter's comments, there is a bit of wizardry going on with his squad.

The Timbers haven't lost since March 9, a 2-1 result against Montreal in the second game of the season. Coming off an 8-16-10 mark last year that left them out of the playoffs, that's quite a turnaround.

And the difference goes more to what Porter said than it does to strategy or talent or a team hitting its stride. It goes to the ethereal and often unreachable nature of team sports.

We hear that often, of course. About how a team has good chemistry or is mentally tough. About how some players are "winners" or know what it takes to be champions.

But few people, even those who have been around a sport their entire professional lives, are able to accurately assess such athletes. As a player, NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas exemplified those traits; as a coach and a general manager, he seemed to forget everything he ever knew about winning.

Or consider another example from the NBA.

There's a reason Robert Horry won seven championship rings. He was never the best player on his team, but you would want him in a foxhole with you.

Which makes Porter a fascinating case study. He built the University of Akron into a national power, even winning an NCAA title in 2010. When you can do that for a team called the Zips, you have something special about you.

But still, hiring a coach from a relatively small college was a bit of a gamble. The Timbers came up with blackjack.

"We have more experienced guys; we know how to handle every situation," Darlington Nagbe said, after providing the only goal of the game. "You see it in our training; you have to bring your best every day."

Nagbe's goal was one for the highlight reel. He pulled off a spin move in the box and drilled a shot into the upper left corner. As one pundit said in the press room: "He's the most interesting man in soccer. He doesn't always score goals, but when he does, they're spectacular."

And it needed to be against Dallas, which has the best record in the league. The Timbers took command of a back-and-forth game and, while the coaches and players won't admit it, demonstrated that they are championship contenders.

"It was an exciting game," Porter said. "There were chances. Both teams were trying to win, they weren't sitting back. They play without fear; they're brave. We try to play the same way."

Any coach can say that. Few truly understand how to build such a team.

Greg Jayne is Sports editor of The Columbian. He can be reached at 360-735-4531, or by email at greg.jayne@columbian.com. To read his blog, go to http://blogs.columbian.com/greg-jayne/